KNOWN to millions of the Radio 4 Today programme's
listeners for her regular contributions to Thought for the
Day, Professor Mona Siddiqui is regarded as a leading
commentator on religious affairs in the UK.
Besides appearing on Radio 4 and Five Live, she is frequently on
air for BBC Scotland. A prominent and articulate woman Muslim, she
is, she says, "rent-a-gob for everything Islam". That has its
"I'm always asked about what I think 'as a Muslim woman', as
opposed to a person who happens to be a Muslim," she says. "It's
not as if I get out of bed in the morning and ask myself how I'm
going to be a British Muslim woman today.
"I think it's partly about ethnicity, and gender; and, yes, it
can be annoying. But, at the same time, I'm very blessed. If I'm
asked [for a comment], I do feel I should say 'Yes.' That way, I
can't criticise others for saying things I don't want to hear.
There are other voices around, but I don't see a wave of people
One reason she is asked, of course, is that her contributions
are measured and intelligent. She is a respected academic -
currently she is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at
the University of Edinburgh. Her areas of specialism are classical
Islamic law; law and gender; early Islamic thought; and
contemporary legal and ethical issues in Islam.
Her books include How to Read the Qur'an, The Good
Muslim: Reflections on classical Islamic law and theology, and
Christians, Muslims and Jesus.
Now, for the first time, she has written a more personal book:
My Way: A Muslim woman's journey, based on her own life
story. It is part memoir and part theological reflection. She
considers contemporary concerns and issues of faith and identity,
as observed from her experiences growing up as Muslim in a Western
country, and sets out to challenge what she regards as lazy
stereotyping and polarised thinking about Islam and the West.
SHE says that she wrote it with her Thought for the Day
listeners in mind, who often write in after hearing her on the
radio. "In fact, a friend of mine said it was a 75,000-word
Thought," she says. "But I'd say it's for an in- formed
reader - probably Western, and possibly secular, but who is
interested in these ideas."
It was a suggestion that her publisher put to her some years
ago, she says, but she rejected until now that she is in her early
fifties. "It didn't feel right before. I wasn't ready until now.
Perhaps, as you get older, you think back over your life."
Professor Siddiqui's life began in Karachi, Pakistan, although
she moved with her family to Britain at the age of four, and
remembers almost nothing of life beforehand.
Her father was a psychiatrist, and the family lived in
Cambridge, to start with, before settling in Huddersfield, where
she and her family of two sisters and three brothers grew up. The
first few years, she writes, are hazy in her memory, and, because
the move was not really talked about, she assumed for some time
that the family would be returning to Pakistan.
"Our parents never discussed their move with us, and, in those
early years, we didn't see fit to ask them," she writes. "They must
have been similar to so many of their generation who just decided
to leave the subcontinent in search of a different and, hopefully,
better life in the UK."
Nor, she says, was there any discussion of "identity", or how it
felt to be Muslims living in Britain. "My parents didn't think
about being British. There was a sense that they were able to live
a good life here, and we were thankful for that, but identity was
not talked about in those days. I think society today would benefit
if there was more constructive conversation about our contribution
as individuals, and we didn't obsess about identity all the
PRAYER and worship were part of the culture of the family, and
faith was always there. "I gradually realised that, whenever I
spoke of God, I associated my belief in God with a way of looking
at life as whole rather than as a collection of rules to be
"God was present in my relationships, my work, in a whole set of
freedoms in the world. Belief was about seeing glimpses of the
divine in the ordinariness of life, and, in a way, that is
fundamentally how I carried God inside me, within a perpetual
She paints a picture of a close and loving family. Social life -
especially for the girls - was constrained, although her mother
told her later that she had made a conscious effort to observe how
young people were brought up in Britain.
There was a great emphasis on education and learning. Her
father, she appreciated only some years later, had been born in a
small and very poor village in India, but had been encouraged by an
aunt to escape into a successful career in medicine. Her mother,
meanwhile, had clear ideas about what she wanted for her three
daughters: one would be a doctor; one a barrister; and one a
university lecturer. They each conformed.
She herself took a first degree in Arabic and French at the
University of Leeds, before completing an MA in Middle Eastern
Studies, and a Ph.D. in Classical Islamic Law at the University of
Manchester. She moved to Glasgow in the 1990s, when she got
married; and, in 1998, founded the Centre for the Study of
PROFESSOR SIDDIQUI's marriage was an arranged one (she and her
husband, Farhaj, have three sons). "In some ways, I made sense of
an arranged marriage by having faith in God, believing that there
would be a good and happy outcome if I continued to trust God, try
to be a loving wife, and be patient and confident," she writes.
"I have been married for over 22 years now, and if I was to
distil three important elements to a happy marriage, a good
marriage, they would be: mutual respect, mutual desire, and the
willingness and courage to take the relationship seriously without
taking oneself too seriously."
And yet, in Britain today, 42 per cent of marriages end in
divorce. "All the studies show that the constant search for
happiness is making us unhappy," she says. "Relationships are the
most important things in our lives - all of us want to feel loved,
and to love. It's not about how people enter into marriage, but
what you do when you are in a relationship that matters.
"For that you need care, and discipline, and parameters, and
boundaries. Also joy; I'm convinced that, if there is no joy, that
relationship won't last."
While it is not enough on its own, she also believes that duty
is an undervalued idea in today's society. "We don't talk about
duty enough," she says. "Nor about the importance of living a moral
life. Personally, I don't think you can be happy if you make the
people around you unhappy. Personal faith means that what I want is
not always the most important thing. You can call that blind faith,
if you like, but it gives meaning to life."
AS THE book comes out, we are living in a time of turmoil.
Professor Siddiqui has long been involved in Christian-Muslim
dialogue as an academic (she was awarded an OBE in 2011 for service
to interfaith relations). "For me, it's never about conversion, but
about using reflection on Christianity as an opportunity to think
about my own faith. So, how have Christian concepts of love and
hospitality made me think about these as Muslim concepts?" She
finds that "people think about God in very similar ways."
But, as she says in My Way, the events of 9/11
represented a huge fault-line. "Many now recognise that, over the
past 15 years or so, especially after the attacks of 11 September
2001, there has been a shift in the way Islam is viewed: namely, as
a political and not just a religious threat to the West.
"It took the tragedy of 9/11, and the subsequent phenomenon of
jihadist rhetoric and terrorism, to create a new global political
The problem, she says, is that this has led to a narrative of
Islam's being difficult. The words "extremism" and "radicalism"
have become so much part of our language that whole communities are
now viewed as problematic. "Identity has be- come everything, and
religion means conflict, in the media," she says. "But, in my
experience, most people of faith don't think of themselves in these
She cites as an example the recent letter that the Communities
Secretary, Eric Pickles, sent to 1000 Muslim leaders (News, 23
January). (The letter was defended by the Prime Minister as
"reasonable, sensible, and moderate".)
"The letter said 'Tell your communities to integrate more,'" she
says. "But that's a way of talking about concepts that only carries
meaning politically, not personally. Belonging doesn't come from
"Again, there was a recent survey that says Muslim citizens are
the most loyal to Britain. What does that mean? Of course, it
depends on the question, and how it is asked."
MUCH of her frustration comes from the need for short answers,
and the lack of nuance in conversation. "I'm interested in what
goes on behind the surface," she says. "As an academic, I know we
struggle to get our studies out there in a nuanced way. The detail
She describes taking part in a panel discussion not long after
the Charlie Hebdo murders last month. "There were 140 or
so people there, mainly students, and I was amazed at the level of
self-flagellation of our liberal democracy, as if that is to blame
for everything. I'm happy to go on public record and say: 'No, it's
not all our fault, and our freedoms here could be eroded, and that
None the less, freedom of expression should not be used to
insult people, she says. "The difference is that, in Britain,
Christianity has allowed for secularism. The Muslim world has not
"Many Muslim countries don't have pluralism, and [many] Muslims
simply don't accept pluralism. Real pluralism is quite demanding -
there are challenges, and people don't want to be challenged."
Professor Siddiqui agrees that some of the current rhetoric
around the UKIP agenda is unpleasant. "I've found myself thinking
'This is not the Britain I enjoy living in,' although personally I
don't feel under any threat, and I'm surrounded by reasonable
"I'm currently writing a book on hospitality, and the Christian
tradition of hospitality. It all points to welcoming the stranger
in our midst. But now it seems that those coming to our shores are
to be feared. Of course, we have to think about our resources, but
I worry about that narrative.
"I ask myself: Do most people think like that, or are most
people not thinking like that at all? There is a sense that the
political reaction is not visionary. Everyone has jumped on a
bandwagon, and that's quite destructive. And if we think it's
possible to dismiss multiculturalism as something we can just
reverse, that would be ludicrous."
My Way: A Muslim woman's journey by Mona
Siddiqui is published by I. B. Tauris at £20 (Church Times
Bookshop special offer £16 - Use code CT388 ).